Part 1: The speedy way through Paris’s top sights.
Paris is a world class city with an awful lot to see and do. There are catacombes, boulevards, avenues, arches, gardens, museums… well you get the picture. There’s alot. But how much of it can you realistically see in just 4 day trip? What should put on your ‘must see list’ and what can you leave till next time?
A lot of these decisions will depend upon personal tastes. For some the Gustave Eiffel’s iron work creation is less important than finding the perfect bistro whilst others brave the queue to see the Mona Lisa and her slightly sullen expression.
To help you decide what’s worth visiting and what you can skip (this time round) here are my ideas of what you can realistically fit into a Parisian city break. I’ve broken my guide into the different areas we visited and I’ll take you through the sites we saw in each.
Tips for planning a 4 day city break:
- Do you want to shop till you drop, eat your way through the city, lap up the culture or just relax? You need to plan what your trip will be.
- Now think about the destination. We both love food and culture so our last two breaks have been to Rome and Paris.
- Check the guide books and holiday websites then make a list of your top 5 attractions in that city.
- Make a day by day plan allowing for extra time to get between attractions, as well as time to eat and relax too!
- Travel early and late. Arriving early morning on the first day and leaving late evening on the last may leave you a little tired but maximises the time you have to see your chosen city.
Canal St-Martin & Bassin de la Villette
I’ve been to Paris several times before I took Hana as a treat and to get engaged; but one of the area’s I have wanted to visit for years and been dying to visit is the beautiful Canal St-Martin. Made famous by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 brilliant masterpiece ‘Amélie’. For over a decade this has been my favourite film, nothing can come close to it. The most memorable, most atmospheric scenes which almost perfectly encapsulate both the movie’s themes and Paris itself were filmed on the locks of this very area.
Walking to the area you pass through some pretty rough areas, perhaps avoid the area directly around Stalingrad Metro at the north end of the Canal where it dips under the road and heads into Bassin de la Villette.
Today the canal is becoming a trendier area with gentrified cafe and bistro close to it’s tree-lined locks. You can get some really pretty photos around here and I can’t recommend it enough – whether you’re a fan of the aforementioned film or not.
Crossing the Pont Ephemère you come to Paris’s largest man-made lake – the Bassin de la Villette. I quite liked this area, it starts with the twin MK2 cinema’s on either side of the water showing identical films, a touch which I quite like. At the base of the Bassin is the Rotunda de la Villette which looks a lovely old building.
Wandering round the banks of the Bassin you’ll see play parks, zip wires across the water, modern looking office buildings and flats mingling with an artificial beach (complete with bar’s and ice cream) and plenty more to see. The Bassin is a really lively area and fun area to walk round. One of my favourite sights was the hydraulic lift bridge, pont de CriméeTop sights in Canal St-Martin
- ‘Amélie’s lock’
- The Bassin de la Villette – and surrounding areas.
Montmartre & Pigalle
Easily on of the most recognizable tourist destinations the world over, Montmartre has variously been a mecca for artists, lovers, worshipers and tourists. Today the top of the hill is filled with holiday makers and couples catching a glimpse of the Parisian skyline from Sacre Couer; whilst at the foot the seedier Pigalle inhabits the Boulevard de Clichy.
Today the windmills and vines which one made this a small village on the outskirts of the Paris metropolis are gone. You may think it isn’t worth trekking up the hill through throngs of holidaymakers but that would be a mistake. Montmartre is still the beating heart of Paris’s romantic personality. Look closely and you can still find cafe’s and restaurants with personality – those which are quintessentially ‘French’.
Montmartre (and Pigalle) is best visited during the day when you can really appreciate the walk as you negotiate those narrow and cobbled streets and ivy clad houses. Start your walk at one of the Metro stations Blanche, Pigalle, Clichy or Abbesses then head upwards. When you’ve made your way to the Parvis du Sacre Coeur the view is more than worth the little walk (as is running down the steps pretending you’re in Amelie).
Most visitors seem content with taking in the view and snapping the beautiful exterior of the basilica but if you don’t go inside you miss so much of the beauty. Wevisited in part to get out of the rain but I’m very thankful for that shower as we may have missed this gorgeous piece of art and architecture. The inside is spectacularly decorated with beautiful glass windows and fantastic ceiling paintings.
After seeing the majestic inside most head up to get the panoramic view of the city. Be a little different and take the much shorter queue to the crypt below. An austere area beneath the main building where services are sometimes held. Here you can feel a much more of the piece you should feel in a building like this. Don’t miss the treasury housing ornaments donated to the church.
“Notre-Dame…the epicentre of Paris”
Looking for a cafe or bistro? You’re first impulse might be to stop in the close by Place du Tertre, but this would be missing the ‘real’ Montmartre or the better cafe’s and brasseries you’ll find as soon as you head a little down the hill. Check out the on the Rue des Abbesses which always has a good mix of places to eat.
Pigalle below seemed forever in the shade of it’s neighbour, fated to sex shops and peep shows forever. Today you’ll still find them and Hana’s first impression of the area was none too good. But head to the lower side of Boulevard de Clichy to discover the up and coming area of South Pigalle, or ‘SoPi’. An area of hipper cafe’s and trendy bars serving well into the early hours. It’s also here you’ll find the hotel we made our home for four days.
We visited Montmartre on the first day – after making our way over from Gare du Nord and via our hotel to leave our luggage. We stopped in the famous Deux Moulin cafe, wandered some warm but wet streets, caught the view and went inside the Bacsilica Sacré Cœur, which is not to be missed.Top sights in Montmartre
- Sacré Cœur
- Montmartre Cemetery
- Moulin Rouge
- Place du Tertre – check out the artists who still sell here daily.
Île de la Cité, Île Sant-Louis, Notre Dame and Pont Neuf.
Well if that isn’t enough to fill a day I don’t know what is! The next area we visited sits right in the middle of Paris, in fact it’s the ancient heart of the city, the Île de la Cité. Sitting between the two banks of the Sein are two small islands, the Île de la Cité and the Île Sant-Louis. I’ve been past them before on boat trips down the Sein but this was my first visit to the historic centre of the city.
The epicenter of Paris has been inhabited since the days of the Parisi tribe who lent their name to the city which gradually grew out of the muddy banks of this little patch of land. Since then it’s been home to tribes, Roman’s and goodness knows who else before becoming some of Paris most prime real estate.
In a way there is a similar feel and layout here to that in Montmartre. It’s bereft of the wide tree-lined boulevards which are part of the more modern imperial France. Instead here you find winding narrow streets, where buildings are tightly packed in together. The buildings and bridges follow the islands natural tear drop curve to a point where you can sit and watch the river traffic go by.
Being a rather flying visit as we just had four days this time we just visited the larger Île de la Cité which is home to the cathedral of Notre-Dame – one of Paris most iconic landmarks. We visited the island twice (on our second and our final days) and I’ve got to say each time the queue to get into the cathedral was HUGE so we didn’t get chance to see inside.
You can however get some great pictures outside the cathedral in the pretty square in front of it. Equally impressive and sitting at the other end of the small island is the Palais de Justice. Formerly the Palais de Cité, a royal palace, a courts of justice and jail. Way back when Marie Antoinette was waiting for the guillotine she resided in an older part of the palais which today you can queue for quite a while before visiting.
There are a lot of restaurants and cafe’s crammed into the streets close to the Notre-Dame but a lot of these looked to be quite touristy and perhaps not the best if what you are looking for is real Parisian food, the stuff the locals eat. Hana’s cousins – our guides for the weekend – recommended a wander around here, perhaps picking up some gifts but skipping off to another part of the city for lunch.
On the topic of presents we stopped into a lovely chocolatier here and picked up some really lovely macaroons as gifts for Hana’s parents. It wasn’t a cheap shop but the quality speaks for itself when you taste something from it!
Stop by the Pont Neuf which is both the first of Pairs modern bridges and the oldest surviving bridge across the River Sein spanning between the left and right bank and meeting at the island in the middle. It’s a beautiful spot to walk across and get a view up and down the river.Top sights in Île de la Cité
- Notra-Dame Cathedral
- Palais de Justice
- La Conciergerie
- Pont Neuf
Coming up in part two
The Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concord, Tuileries Gardens and Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli.
Palais Opera and Boulevard Haussmann.